9th Sunday after Trinity [by Revd Dave Bookless PhD]

Texts (Revised Common Lectionary): Old Testament: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm: 80:1-2, 9-end, Epistle: Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

by Revd Dr Dave Bookless, A Rocha International,
focussing on Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80

Both Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 talk about Israel as God’s vineyard – designed to flourish but now overgrown and struggling due to the people’s disobedience. Israel, of course, is both a people and a place – a fertile and fruitful land when cared for as God intends. Today, in the light of the New Testament where God’s promises to Israel are now for all people (Gentiles too) and for all the earth (as intended from Genesis 1), we can see Planet Earth as God’s vineyard. God has entrusted us with the care of this beautiful and complex world and of our fellow-creatures than live upon it. But we, like Israel, have sowed bloodshed instead of justice, distress instead of righteousness.

This month, August 2019, has seen the release of a new special report from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) looking at land-use around the world: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/srccl. It’s findings are stark: over 70% of the earth’s ice-free land is shaped by human activity. Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices contribute about 25% of human greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet, land could be our great hope! Land currently sequesters (absorbs) twice as much CO2 as it produces … but that’s the forests and wild-lands which are disappearing faster as humans encroach on them, and a changing climate turns drylands into deserts and rainforests into savannahs. We need to have a radically different relationship with the land. And that brings us back to the Bible!

The Bible says a lot about land! Land is never simply an inanimate object to be exploited. It is always owned by God (Psalm 24.1) and, although we are allowed to use it, we do so reverently and responsibly, or the land will ‘vomit us out’ (Leviticus 18.28). Land is thus a full partner in the covenant between God and humanity, and our relationship with God and with land cannot be separated. If today, because of greed, overconsumption and climate change, we are seeing soil fertility reducing, harvests becoming unpredictable, and extreme weather ruining well-made plans, we need to return humbly to God. 2 Chronicles 7.14 is a prayer for God to heal the land: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” It echoes the prayer of Psalm 80:19 as a desperate people look at their ruined vineyard and turn to God: “Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

So, as we see God’s vineyard, this beautiful planet, facing a dire future both for humanity and nature, how should we respond?

  1. We need to see what’s really going on. In our Gospel, from Luke 12, Jesus challenges people to “know how to interpret this present time” (v.56). He jokes that we may be good at predicting if it’s going to rain today or not, but that we don’t see the big picture. The big picture today is what is happening to our planet, with the Climate Crisis, pollution, biodiversity loss, marine plastics, and the loss of fertile land. So our first challenge is to wake up! To take this seriously, read the evidence, and change our daily and political priorities.
  2. We need to cry out to God for his mercy and help. That’s the response in both Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 and it should be ours too. True transformation begins with repentance and turning right around – the Biblical turn is metanoia. We need to pray for a spiritual transformation both inside and beyond our churches. According to 2 Chronicles 7.14, God will only heal the land when the people repent.
  3. We need to take radical action. Many Christians tend to either see things in spiritual terms (let’s just pray about it) or in activist terms (let’s do something about it), but true biblical faith combines both because we are both spiritual and material beings. Today we are seeing radical action with the Climate Strikes inspired by the young Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, and with the Extinction Rebellion movement bringing peaceful chaos to city centres. Just as radical are the retired couple I know who decided to spend their grandchildren’s inheritance on solar panels and an electric car because, as they put it, ‘What’s the point in inheriting money if the earth isn’t going to be liveable?’ What radical action might God be calling you do start, as from today?

by Revd Dave Bookless PhD, London